Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

I’d travelled through the Cotswolds many times before, captivated by the golden glow of the honey-coloured stone buildings, that just seemed to lend themselves to being painted.

The earthy tones of yellow ochre complimented by soft dull lilacs of wisteria-laden-branches create a really mellow colour palette, you then have crumbling walls surrounded by trees and foliage that bring in a bright sap-green colour pop…

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Bench on the Green, Broadway, Cotswolds

White painted fences and gate posts sit next to dark 17th-century leaded windows, the environment just seems to have this lovely inbuilt combination of contrast and warm golden light.

 “Even when the sun is obscured and the light is cold, these walls are still faintly warm and luminous, as if they knew the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering about them.” J.B. Priestley describing the area.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

It was only when a recent family party led me back to the area of Broadway, I discovered that it was in fact, a tranquil escape for an amazing collection of craftspeople, writers, musicians and painters.

From the composer, Sir Edward Elgar to one of the founders of the Arts & Crafts movement William Morris, by 1880 the area had begun to attract a group of artists known as the ‘Broadway Colony’ but the resident of interest for me was John Singer Sargent.

Sargent first visited Broadway in September 1885 to recuperate from a head injury. He’d been invited to go to this sleepy village by his friend, the American painter Edwin Austin Abbey and it provided a much-needed break from the recent demands of Paris.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Farnham House in Broadway

He stayed at Farnham House, home of the painter F.D. Millet, and it was here in the vibrant garden hidden behind this home that became the setting for one of John Singer Sargent’s most famous iconic paintings ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, Oil on Canvas, 1885–6

The subjects were Dolly and Polly the daughters of the illustrator Frederick Barnard, who also lived in the village

It has always being one of my favourite paintings of Sargent’s and was one of the few large-scale figurative pieces he created ‘En Plein Air’.

Painted over two Summer periods, he’d wait for the purplish light of dusk just after ‘Golden hour’ each evening, which is the time when the sun has set but the atmosphere is still filled with colour. Time was of the essence to capture this magical impression and he painted within a 25 minute limited time-frame before he lost the light.

His friend Edward Gosse commented on his technique:

“Instantly, he took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time, rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only, with equal suddenness, to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining, and then, while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight permitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis.” Sir Edmund Gosse

(You can see a portrait Sargent painted of Sir Edmund Gosse here)

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

John Singer Sargent, The Millet House & Garden, Oil on Canvas, 1886

Sargent resumed work on Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose for a second Summer in Broadway 1886 after spending the Winter in London. Anticipating his return, that Spring, Sargent sent ahead 50 Aurelian lily bulbs for the Millet family to establish, so he could recreate the scene at their new home in the village, Russell House.

And in the painting above of Russell House and Garden, you can see the pots full, ready and waiting.

Coincidentally, I’d been drawn to this painting when it was on display at the ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ exhibition at the Royal Academy last year. At the time I didn’t appreciate the connection to the Carnation Lily Lily Rose painting.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

John Singer Sargent, Hollyhocks, Isle of Shoals, Oil on Canvas, c.1886

Pro tip: You can read more about the technical aspects and pigments used in Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose in this research review from British Art Studies.

The Power of Environment

It seems so obvious but it’s true, as an artist you respond to the environment that you’re immersed in and being back in the Cotswolds was a great reminder.

This concept of the power of environment was first ingrained into me when on a field trip as an art student at Pebble Beach in Dover, near Henry Moore’s Kingston studio near the Kent coast.

Our challenge for the day was to ‘Go and find a mini Henry Moore.’

Initially, I was skeptical, but when you started to really look at the pebbles on the beach there was a recurring theme. Smooth sea-worn pebbles with holes bore into them from the waves. The closer you looked and the more you searched you started to see the mini, live maquettes of the eventual huge sculptures that Moore created.

Sometimes it’s the environment that motivates somebody to be who he can be.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

It was hard not to be influenced by the charms of the cottage garden where we were staying.
The bluebells were in bloom and the tall stone walls looked like they’d been dressed by the ivy and wisteria.

I came across these great old wooden steps. I loved the mossy green shadow, and if you cover over the mass of bluebells in the corner, it’s amazing how close in hue the rest of the scene is, from the greens reflected in the glass, the muted shadows on the ladders to the tonal trees in the far distance.

When you then add the blue back into the bottom of the frame, it breathes life to the whole of the piece.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Garden Tap, Pen & Ink Sketch, Will Kemp 2017

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

This blue adds an amazing path of colour to the floor of the curved metal pergola and the door in the distance acts as a dramatic dark contrast.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of EnvironmentHere because you’ve got the ivy growing up the side of the building, it gives you a dark organic shape which softens of up the structure of the rest of the house.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Flashes of colour on the right-hand side, are a great subject for painting, even as a photo they have a stylised painterly feel, due to the great shapes and contrast in tone.

Sketching the Garden

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Watercolour Blocks & Sketching Pens Kit

For the sketches of the Wisteria below I used the kit above:

  • Muji 0.5mm pen
  • Pentel Brush Pen
  • Lamy Fountain pen with Lamy water soluble Ink
  • Pentel Aquash water brush Pen
  • Winsor & Newton Watercolour Marker in Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna & Lemon Yellow
  • Sennelier L’Aquarelle Opera Rose watercolour
  • Winsor Newton Paynes Grey Tube Watercolour
  • Watercolour Pan colours used: Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow, Sap Green, Viridian, Ultramarine Blue.

Pro tip: You can read more about my Essential Urban Sketching Kit here.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

This fantastic wooden door just allows us to glimpse into the garden beyond, through a tunnel of wisteria.

You can see the setting sun reflecting on the door as it bounces onto it, and the small terracotta pot in the corner helps to ground our view.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

I started this sketch using the Muji 0.5mm Pen and was working on a landscape sketch pad (Moleskine 21cm x 13cm ) I then blocked in the dark shadow using the Pentel Brush pen. The subtle grey is created by a very slight wash using the water-soluble Lamy ink.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Here, I’ve pushed the darks onto the tree trunk on the left-hand side and added a few dashes of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna with the Watercolour markers. A few touches of the Lemon Yellow into the leaves, start to bring a lightness to that area.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

I’ve continued on with the Lemon Yellow watercolour marker to draw in a base tone of yellow onto the leaves. Then swap to a Sap Green watercolour pan. I use the Pentel Aquash brush pen to paint in the Sap Green around the shape of the Wisteria.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

Here you can start to see the pattern of the brighter green moving across the piece.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

I now mix in some darker green using a Viridian watercolour pan and mute down the Sap Green with a tiny touch of Cadmium Red.

Inspiration, Impressionism and the Power of Environment

I can then build up the lilac colours in the Wisteria. I mix a purple using Ultramarine Blue and some Opera Rose watercolour. Some of the more muted tones are using Payne’s Grey to dull them down. I also darken down some of the background greens by adding Ultramarine Blue and Paynes Grey into the Viridian.

I think sometimes when you see a painting in isolation, in a gallery or book, you can’t imagine how much of a bearing external influences have had shaping that final piece. The landscape, colour harmony, light fall and level of contrast.

Even the friends around Sargent played an important part in creating his Masterpiece, and the injury that brought him to recuperate in Broadway is often described as “the happiest accident in his life”.

You Might Also Like:

1. Singer Sargent & Friends – Exhibition Review
2. Landscape Sketching Course – How to sketch and work with pens and watercolour markers in the Landscape.
3. Inside Rembrandt’s Studio – Discovering the light of Amsterdam


This Post Has 99 Comments

  1. I have been to the Broadway and recognise some of the places you photographed…in fact I went with Jenny on a portrait painting course nearby! Love the light and the colour of the sandstone. It always looks so warm. And the wisteria over that door – I took that photo too. It’s not surprising that some of our great creative minds sought it out as a source of stimulation and a trigger for some beautiful work.
    Great post with really helpful info and feeling inspired again!

    Thanks Will

    1. Hey Ali, really pleased you enjoyed your visit there with Jen, the Cotswold stone is ace!

  2. Thank you for this.Very informative and interesting

  3. YES, INDEED, BUILDINGS GRAB THE LIGHT, that makes us sense the time of the day..

  4. These are absolutely beautiful photographs of what looks like a magical place. Thank you for posting them, and for sharing your materials and working process for the sketch. I had not heard of watercolor markers before reading this, and I’ll definitely give them a try.

    1. Hi Ruth, really pleased you enjoyed the photos and sketches. Yes, the watercolour markers can be really handy for sketching fine details and heavy saturation colour.

  5. I really love your posts. This particularly enjoyed so much because I`m such a big fan of Sargent. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks very much Ada, glad you enjoyed it.

  6. Had to smile when I received your e-mail inspiration :-D I am actually going to the Cotswolds this spring, to walk in the northern part of this beautiful area. Looking forward to capture the “small moments” over there :-) Thanks for sharing with us! :-)

    1. Perfect timing Dunna, really hope you enjoy your trip.

  7. I love your posts. Not only are they educational but beautiful to look at. Very inspirational. I am always inspired and have a deeper appreciation of art.

    Thank you and please never stop,

    Valeri Johnson

    1. Thanks very much Valeri, so pleased you found it informative.

  8. Dear Will.
    Thank you so very much for this inspiring tutorial. Its been almost four short winters moving to central Florida from a coastal environment. It has been a bit of a struggle to grasp on my canvas the mossy old oaks and prairies of orange trees.
    In reading, I am jolted to search deeper within my artistic soul.
    Thank you for the yank.

    1. Hi Barbara, so pleased to hear you’re feeling inspired to dive a little deeper, glad you enjoyed it.

  9. As usual fabulous blog Will. So much information, especially about Sargent. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

    1. My pleasure Cath, hope you’re well.

  10. Will,
    It’s always a thrill to hear from you.
    I’ve been doing a few pen and ink lately so your expose was timely.
    Of course I have other projects in the works.
    Thanks for your travel adventure and art history
    It like hearing from a dear friend!

    1. Very kind of you to say so Mike, glad your Pen & Ink sketches are going well.

  11. How do you find the water pen? I saw one today in Cass Art, isn’t a brush just as good?

    1. Hi Gandha, you can use a brush but I find it’s quicker when out sketching using the water pen as the water in readily available in the reservoir of the brush. The harder you squeeze the pen the more water come out so it gives you a very quick way to add small washes of colour to a sketch without having to pour our water into a pot.

  12. What a you wonderful article. Love Sargent’s work, would love to travel some day to Cotswolds. Your sketches & Demo was inspiriting, thank you.

    1. Thanks very much Edie, it’s a really lovely part of the country, glad you enjoyed the sketches.

  13. Will, I have to compliment you on the wonderful job you do of presenting a veritable “mini-course” in plein air sketching. All the lead up photos and the layout of materials and then the step by step demonstration! Fantastic. Thanks for making these great e-blasts available.
    Vernon Sanders

    1. Thanks very much Vernon, that’s very kind of you to say so, pleased you enjoyed it.

  14. Hi Will

    Thank you very much for your very generous article. Pictures of the wonderful Cotswold scenery really inspired me and I can’t wait to start painting again after a long break entertaining visiting relatives. Thank you very much.

    1. So pleased you’re feeling inspired Mary and enjoy your painting ‘me time’!


    1. That’s brilliant to hear Darlene, and what a great evocative memory of your time in the Cotswolds. Enjoy capturing your garden with your pens and watercolours.

  16. As always Will you THIRD EYE genius shines through. Hmmm, some photo shots can also be minimized and used as background for portraiture paintings. Thanks for the share.

  17. I look so forward to your posts, Will. Thanks for sharing your trip. I especially love the photos with the bluebells as we don’t have them in our state of Georgia,USA. Everything you do is very inspirational.

    1. That’s very kind of you to say so Annette, yes it can be easy to take your surrounding flowers for granted, so pleased you enjoyed the bluebell photos.

  18. Hi Will,
    I’ve just finished a hard day’s gardening and come in to find this article. It makes me so excited and happy to read it and see your photos, sketches etc. I can’t explain just how inspirational I find your writing and sketches – the information and help is the icing on the cake. I do try, but I just can’t seem to ‘see’ the colours as you do. When you explain, it all seems so simple and looks fantastic – just how I want to paint. Is it possible to learn the art of seeing colours??? If so, please put that on your list of topics. Probably I just need to be more confident and learn to love what I do produce? I’ll never be a Singer-Sargeant but I would love to aim to produce work that I like myself!!! Thank you so much for sending all the articles and keeping me inspired. By the way, I hope Vanessa and you had a wonderful time while in the Cotswolds and it wasn’t all work! Many thanks and please continue sending artistic inspiration via technology. It is so very much appreciated. Myra

    1. Hi Myra, well, that’s lovely to hear. Yes, learning to see and mix colours is a skill that can be learnt, just like when you learn to draw. It’s usually a 3 stage approach, first, I’m drawn to the colours, then look for a composition that would look good in black and white, then look for a balance of colours that feel harmonious together. We had a fantastic time thanks, hope your garden is coming on well.

  19. Beautiful lesson. Thank you !

  20. Hi Will,
    Thanks once again for a wonderful amd informative article. I so enjoyed it. And such beautiful photos! The articles are definitely worth all the effort you put into them, have a great day.

    1. Thanks Tania, so pleased you enjoyed the photos, have a lovely weekend.

  21. I am an amateur painter who also visited the Cotswold, upper and lower Slaughter area a few years ago and was inspired to paint .
    I enjoyed your posting and your sketches.

    1. That’s great to hear Monica, pleased you had an inspirational trip.

  22. Amazing , thank you for sharing , enjoy all of your articles and needless to say your work ,love love love the photographs and your depiction, will you do any in oils, or acrylics?

    1. Hi Kim, glad you liked the photos, yes I’m working on some more developed figurative pieces from the trip at the moment.

    1. Thanks Verne, hope you’re keeping well.

  23. Will,
    I have taken a couple of your beginning courses online and have gleaned a lot from them especially the intro drawing class. Your sketches inspire me to try more! I like the water faucet because of the textures and the wisteria is charming.

    1. Hi Cyndy, thanks very much and so pleased you enjoyed and learnt a lot from the drawing course.

  24. I was born in the Cotswolds and I think the beauty of the landscape inspired my brothers and I to paint.
    We spent most of our childhood playing on the Malvern hills in Elgar’scountry too. Later I spent many happy hours wandering around the beautiful gardens and estates of Hidcote, Kiftsgate, Bourton and Barnsley when studying garden design. I’m not surprised so many artists are drawn to this area.
    I really enjoyed reading your article and painting of the Wisteria. As you say the combination of the lilac and honey works so well. I also find it such a compliment to green.
    Thank you for that nostalgic trip.

    1. Hi Lynda, sounds like a blissful way to grow up and study, so pleased it gave you a chance to reminisce.

  25. Great, Will, always great. Thank you very much.

  26. Thanks very much for your email. Very glad you had a good time. I am dabbling again in acrylics and doing pencil sketches mostly without finishing them. When I do something I am happy about I will send another message. Take care friend

    1. Thanks Joseph, glad you’re enjoying your sketches.

  27. Hi Will, many thanks for another great email, I just love the way you share your knowledge. I’m afraid the garden has stolen all my spare time recently but almost done now and I’ll soon be able to pick up my beloved brushes once more, may even attempt the flowers. Have a great summer. Xxx

    1. Hi Sheila, nice to hear from you, really pleased you enjoyed it, enjoy your summer in the garden.

  28. I really love your posts. Thank you!

  29. Thank you for sharing Will – absolutely beautiful and inspiring – stunning scenery.

    1. Glad you feeling inspired Cheryl.

  30. Very insightful and interesting post, really enjoy your perspective on the photos and the step by step guide. What a beautiful areas, thank you so much for sharing!

    1. So pleased you enjoyed the step-by-step Teresa.

  31. Ahhh, Will, how I wish we could all be there with you, learning first-hand your artistic mastery! Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful experience.


    1. Thanks Paula, really pleased you enjoyed the journey through the Wisteria!

  32. Will, Loved this post from beginning to end. The sketches and photos are inspiring. Thanks for your continued insights and instruction.


    1. Thanks very much Debra, glad you enjoyed the photos and sketches.

  33. Your paintings and lessons are both so brilliant and perfectly done. Im so happy that eI chose you for a teacher in this field of my passion. I will try water colours too now. Thank you.

    1. Thanks very much Margaret-Anne, hope you enjoy experimenting with the watercolours.

      1. Hi Will
        How lovely to receive this inspirational email. Just love the way you execute your drawing skills and the Cotswalds are a favorite of my husband and I we stayed in Charlbury in 1989 after out wedding. Still painting and still happily married. Hoping to create something interesting for our next society exhibition coming up soon. Feeling encouraged and excited. Many thanks.

        1. Thanks very much Lynne, really pleased you’re feeling inspired for your next exhibition, hope it goes well.

  34. Will, thank you for this wonderful post. As a fan of Sargeant it touched a spot. Many years ago, I purchased the poster of his famous painting. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. You’re more than welcome Barbra, so pleased you enjoyed reading about the context of the painting’s creation.

  35. My cousin lives there. On my last visit to her house I took many of the same photos, beautiful, beautiful place. I’m not surprised that you were inspired. I’m inspired to go through my old forgotten photos! I started painting 5 years ago, so I wasn’t yet a painter on that trip.

    1. Good one Jody, hope you can find some inspiration in your shots from your trip.

  36. Loved your post, so romantic. Going into winter here with the last of the Autumn leaves on the trees. Am off to the Art shop to see if I can buy the watercolour pens!

    1. Thanks Jill, yes, I find the watercolour markers can be really handy for adding colour notes to sketches when out travelling, hope you enjoy experimenting with them.

  37. Hi Will,
    Thanks once again for a wonderful and informative article. I enjoyed it. Such beautiful photos! The articles are definitely worth all the effort you put into them, And amazing , thank you for sharing , enjoy all of your articles and needless to say your work ,love all those photographs and your depiction, will you do any in oils, or acrylics? have a great day.

    1. That’s very kind of you to say so Hasnu, so pleased you enjoyed reading it.

  38. Thank you for these beautiful photos. You really are an encouragement Will. Thanks.

    1. My pleasure Rosemarie, glad you’re feeling inspired!

  39. Thanks so much for your posts Will. I am still learning and find your work so helpful.
    I have not tried water colours as yet but your art today has inspired me to try it.
    Thanks so much.

    1. That’s fantastic to hear Kathleen, hope you enjoy experimenting with watercolours.

  40. Thank you for a lovely post. Really inspirational and itching to pick up pencils etc again. Reminds us there are lovely things in the world..just what we all need

    1. Thanks very much Rachel so pleased you enjoyed it.

  41. Your insights and the information you provide allows me to see so much more with your practiced eye. I am new at painting but continuing a long tradition in my family that I didn’t realize I would enjoy so very much. My Grandmother and Father both were artists.
    But I didn’t dig into their knowledge and insights when they were alive so I missed out there. Your Web site is filling-in so many of the gaps and providing outstanding inspiration. I’m one in this long line of thankful readers and viewers of your work!

    1. You’re very kind to say so Andrew, brilliant to hear that you’ve been finding the insights helpful to develop your own artistic eye and continue your painting heritage.

  42. Thank you Will,you always inspire me .

  43. Hi Will, I just love your work and I love Sargent, I have attempted to do some of Sargent,s work as practice. I have never been to the Cotswold’s but have seen pictures your pictures are really inspiring. I have moved recently to COUNTRY VICTORIA Australia and the scenery is just wonderful I can’t wait for spring when the colour is upon us. The trees have been beautiful this Autumn but now the trees are nearly bare.
    Thank you for all your posts.

    1. You’re more than welcome Linda, pleased you’re feeling inspired, hope the studies go well.

  44. Thanks Will

    Some great ideas to add to my sketching- have you ever discussed taking the sketch and creating an oil painting?

    I’m going to look for that ” Golden Light” here in Boston.


    1. Cheers David, I haven’t currently got an article on the stages from sketch to finished painting oil painting. On the recent acrylic Venice course I show how I work on preliminary tonal sketches and testing techniques on smaller pieces before committing to a larger canvas.
      Hope this helps,


  45. Miserable weather outside cheered up by seeing your post! :-)) Watercolour markers are something always said I would try! Got the inspiration now! Thank you!

    1. Good for you Margaret, they can be so helpful in blocking in some fresh colour to a sketch.

      1. Water colour markers arrived now so here goes! Have a practice before dinner! :-)

        1. Really hope you enjoy experimenting with them Margaret

  46. Dear Sir,
    These are simply stunning. I must go for an online course. But l am yet to decide which one suites me.It’s always a thrill to hear from you.
    I’ve been doing a few pen and ink lately so your expose was timely.
    Thanks for your travel adventure and art history
    They are unanimously pleasant, all your artworks.
    Yours sincerely,
    Jennifer Chaston

    1. Thanks very much Jennifer, very kind of you. You might enjoy this beginners guide that has a section that goes through a route through the courses.

  47. Thanks Will, for another fascinating article. Very interesting about Singer Sargeant and his inspirations. Also a fantastic painting you completed on the Wisteria. Great landscape painting kit you utilized.

    1. Thanks very much Andrew, so pleased you enjoyed it.

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